Google Tiers Search into the Global, Social and Personal

We’ve seen lots of hubbub this past week about Google’s decision to integrate its social network, Google+ with search. The competitive dynamics with Twitter and other social networks is somewhat interesting, but I’m more interested in what Google’s move says about the future of search.

I believe Google’s Search, plus Your World represents a real breakthrough because it’s an initial step towards tiering web search into three layers: global search, social search and personal search.

“Global” Search

Let’s start with what we already know and that’s the good ol’ search we’ve had for years. I just want to offer a little perspective shift to explain why Google is using a little globe icon to represent this standard search now when you switch between it and social search. Google’s PageRank algorithms were designed to tap “the collective intelligence of the web.” Google crawled our web pages to see what other pages we linked to as a proxy for how important they were. So this search we’ve known and loved for years, like social search, is very much powered by people. It’s just people we don’t know along mixed together with the people we do know. It’s everyone. And that’s why you could call it global – and why Google’s new globe icon makes sense.

Social Search

This is the search layer we just got from Google last week, but don’t forget that Bing has had Facebook social integration for about a year now. If you haven’t yet played around with this feature on Bing or Google search, I recommend you try it. Both services allow you to run your searches with the social layer on – or off. In Bing’s case you log in and out from Facebook to do so. In Google’s case you can just toggle between the “globe” and the “person” icon above.

What I find interesting about this social search layer is that it exposes something beyond just the “social graph” (what we call our connections with other people when mapped on the web). You see, it also exposes the “interest graph”, which is to say, the things that people are interested in. When you combine the social and the interest graph, you get a “shared interest graph” – the map of things that you share a common interest in with other people. Do a search for “Spiderman” or “social CRM” and you see results about those topics that have been liked, plussed or shared by people you know. That’s very useful, actually – a great way to find people with similar interests.

Personal Search

Personal search is geared toward finding your stuff. With the Internet of Things, one day that will include the things you own or are connected with in the real world, and you can bet Google will be all over that. But right now, I’m talking about information that is connected to you in some way. I see at least three types of personal connections to this information (there may well be more – let me know if you think of them):

  • My documents: as we move more and more of our collaboration online and more and more of our email and other communications are stored in the cloud, personal search will help you find that stuff more easily. Searching for information within your documents and email threads in Gmail is a clear example of this. But it’s also true for information that you need to get to in Google Docs.
  • Stuff I’ve marked: this is information that we’ve shared, liked, starred, or bookmarked. This will likely replace some of the way we use bookmarks today and make shared bookmarking services like Delicious and Diigo increasingly obsolete.
  • Stuff I’ve seen: we leave a trail behind us when we use the web and sometimes it’s useful to be able to filter searches just to the places we’ve been. This is particularly true when we have information that we know we’ve already seen somewhere, but just can’t remember where it was. This feature is already available in Google. When you do a search and get the results, just click the “More search tools” link on the left and you’ll get a list of options. Just click “Visited pages” and Google will just show you the pages you’ve visited.

Three Tiered Search is Already Here — It’s Just Not Very Evenly Distributed

This shift to a three-tiered search framework is already underway. We’ve had global search for a long time and Google just made it easy to switch back and forth between it and social search. Personal search is there already, it’s just a bit hidden right now. It wouldn’t take much to extend the little toggle I mentioned above so that it could switch from “global”, “social” and “personal.” A three-way switch.

I’m telling you, this isn’t just my imagination. If you doubt what I’m saying, take a look at the way search works in Google+ (see image on the left). You can search for results “From everyone”, “From your circles” and “From you.” Three tiers: and they’re all very useful. I believe t’s just a matter of time before this convention spreads from the search in Google+ to our regular search.

A Search Slider

These three tiers get even more interesting when you think of them as a spectrum, rather than three distinct modes:

  • In between personal and social search is the overlap of content that you and your friends have shared, liked, starred or plussed. That’s useful because it really highlights shared interests.
  • In between social and global search are ever radiating, concentric circles of friends-of-friends, and friends-of-friends-of-friends. That’s useful because it’s a great way of seeing topics and the networks of people following them that you don’t know – and how to reach them.

In the coming HTML5 world, you’ll be able to move gracefully from one tier to another, perhaps with a slider of some sort, to seamlessly shift and filter results before your eyes. And when you’re interacting with search results via an Android phone, iPhone, Windows Phone, iPad or some other mobile device, you’ll be doing this filtering with a simple sliding gesture of your finger on the screen. With a sufficiently fast data connection (and some good engineering from Google and other search providers), the results should change fairly instantaneously, giving you a nice intuitive feel for how to manage your information filtering.

 Why This Matters

Our identity and social ties are connected to how we search for information, and we now need more control over this coming-together of people and ideas. People are the way we network information. This was true back in the early days of search as well, but just not that obvious because people’s linking of pages to other pages was anonymous and aggregated by the search engines so that we couldn’t see who was linking to what.

Who’s linking to what matters. It matters a lot. The information I get through some people is excellent, while the information I get through others is lower quality. People are information filters and how good they are at that depends not only on their skills but the overlap between our interests. This “shared interest graph” is one of the most powerful things about identity and the social graph now being connected to search.

We are now all “information networkers” and search engines are now changing to accomodate this shift. Helping you distinguish the information you ‘network’, your friends ‘network’ and everyone else ‘networks’ represents an extremely powerful and useful change in the way we search for information and I have a feeling we’re going to get very hooked on it.


  1. Gideon, now that I’ve read your essay here, rather than on Google+, it amplifies my sense that blogs are simply a better forum to present information like this. When I’m on G+, I find that I’m much more distracted and more likely to skim over posts, jumping back-and-forth participating in multiple conversations concurrently. Here I sat, focused, and READ the entire piece, without distraction. Quite a difference.

  2. Gideon: I have to completely join Leland on his observation. I think the tie TO something, from a post via New/Social Media circles really is the “path” that I prefer as a reader and I can’t possibly be alone. Thanks for the post and I look forward to looking in more often.

    • Thanks for your note, Mike. Yeah, it was an interesting experiment. Way, way more engagement over on G+ than comments here. A richer reading experience, but not as optimal for getting lots of good feedback.